Director: Simon Amstell
Screenplay: Simon Amstell
Producers: Dominic Dromgoole, Alexandra Breede, Louise Simpson
Starring: Colin Morgan, Anna Chancellor, Phenix Brossard, Jack Rowan, Jessica Raine
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 85 mins
Why do we go to the movies? It’s an oft-asked but stupid question because film, like most mediums, is a complex beast and the multitude of emotions we glean from it too numerous to boil down to an easily digestible explanation. But if we’re going to be reductive (and we are) then let’s pretend there are two major reasons for our addiction to the silver screen. The first and most obvious is escapism. We long to see stories bigger than our own starring people better looking than ourselves who can achieve their aims within a two hour runtime rather than incrementally across the course of a painstaking lifetime. But sometimes this lack of realism fails to satisfy and instead we go looking for smaller narratives that reflect our own experiences. It’s a yearning that independent films have often catered for but the broad scope of even this comparatively small subsection of film history demonstrates how difficult this small-scale approach can be to pull off. If the viewer recognises their own life in a film the effect can be tremendous, causing their small world to seemingly expand to fill the towering screen. If, however, the intimate details of a film-makers observations are unfamiliar to us then the effect can be like being trapped in a shoebox for 90 minutes with no way to lift the lid even a crack.
I’m not really a fan of Simon Amstell but he has somehow remained on my radar as a person of interest throughout his diverse career. He has always felt like someone I should like, his endearing vulnerability constantly visible even through his harder-edged Buzzcocks persona and his gentle wit and absurdist sensibilities informing his work on Channel 4’s Popworld and his subsequent forays into sitcom and stand-up comedy. But, through no fault of Amstell’s, his time on Popworld coincided with my early 20s when I was more likely to be vapidly bloviating about the emptiness of modern pop music than actually listening it; his celebrated tenure as host of Never Mind the Buzzcocks came at the same time I began to turn away from the increasingly samey boy’s club panel shows that seemed to be on every hour prime time had to offer; even Amstell’s recent TV movie Carnage, whose comic observations on veganism I felt sure would strike a chord with my plant-munching self, felt overstretched to me. But appreciating his ambition and craft, I decided to given Amstell another chance when his film Benjamin received his usual clutch of enthusiastic reviews.
Benjamin tells the story of its titular film-maker as he wrestles with the anxiety caused by the release of his second film and his fears that he may be unable to experience love. It’s familiar territory for an independent film and Amstell’s choices at time feel obvious. This is a sparsely populated story, its handful of awkward characters frequently shot from a distance or pushed to the edge of the frame in order to make us share in their alienation. There are frequent interjections by happy-sad acoustic indie songs that feel de rigueur for material of this kind. But in homing in on his characters’ inability to connect, Amstell fails to make them believable or particularly interesting. The central romance between Benjamin and a French musician never seems convincing because the awkwardness of communication between the two does not seem to change as their relationship develops. Likewise, Benjamin’s friendship with depressed comedian Stephen fails to seem real because the pair seem to just be having a deadpan, low-key off. Their similarities in this respect could be what brought them together but they never seem to plausibly enjoy each others company. Given this emotional disconnect, the film’s scant 82 minute runtime seems considerably longer.
In Benjamin, Amstell has made the next logical step in a career which I have, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, kept a close eye on. I am genuinely pleased to see that the film has attracted some acclaim and that Amstell will no doubt continue to explore the possibilities this opens up for him but, for me, Benjamin will probably be the moment I finally concede that his work just isn’t for me. For many, this small, intense film will surely resonate but for me it was very much a short spell in the shoe box.
Benjamin is released on DVD by Verve Pictures on 12 August 2019.